Friday, 22 August 2008

Prom 46: A wide-awake beauty

Prom 46’s Sleeping Beauty with the LSO and Gerghiev was a pure feat of theatre. By the end of Act 3, caught up in the tale, my ‘suspension of disbelief’ was absolute.

No smoochie soft-centres or artificial sweeteners where you least expect it. Gerghiev informed it with ‘Russian’ emotionality; occasionally like a grand gesture that almost slapped you across the face. And so tight! The performance was superbly controlled, always with an undercurrent of the darkly threatening which lifted only in Act 3. Shakespeare would have understood that. It was a ‘Winter’s Tale’.

Gerghiev led us through his theatrical reading as a dance of air and light. Even the ‘wicked’ witch Carabosse was no ugly hag; she hovered, light and lethal in the Finale of the first part of Act 1, and our Aurora was sometimes bird, sometimes butterfly. The LSO read his energy and his gestures with exact interpretative ability.

Act 3 (performed complete for the first time at the Proms) was an extended Hollywood happy ending, an essential release, well deserved after the darkness of the foregoing acts. And the evocation of the fairy-tale characters (not just the splendid cat, but Red Riding Hood faced with the Wolf) absolutely true to Perrault.

We do need to indulge once in a while in escapism, joy and laughter, never forgetting that this Master of Ceremonies is Russian to the soul by concluding this three hours of escapism with a hymn to darkness and majesty.

I will carry away with me a sense of operatic, grand, display of Russian sentiment tempered by a cool, accurate, restrained intellect, almost metaphysical.

(Zeina Trewin.)

RAH Live Prom 46: Tchaikovsky: Sleeping Beauty; LSO/Gerghiev

Don't just stand there . . .

. . .stand up for something!

' The world-renowned conductor Valery Gergiev, himself an Ossetian, gave a concert in the devastated South Ossetian capital Tskhinvali with his home orchestra, the Mariinsky of St Petersburg.

Gergiev, who is also principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra, performed a requiem of Russian music for a city he compared in a speech to Stalingrad.

As the orchestra performed with South Ossetia's shattered parliament building as a backdrop, soldiers and civilians listened side by side.

Gergiev told his audience - and the world - that Georgia, not Russia had been the aggressor. "We know how much people suffered," he said in English.

"We know how much these children suffered, old people. Let's not allow it to happen ever again. And I want to say if it was not for the help from the Russian army there would be more casualties, more victims - thousands and thousands more." '

In all the swamp of propaganda orchestrated from the USA of late, and, I regret, followed largely by the Brits, Gergiev is saying something we are in danger of forgetting.


Late music warning . . .

No, I won't. Give up writing about 'contemporary' music. So I did listen to Prom 48 (but not the Mahler) for the Stockhausen, which I will be reviewing, though I suppose it will frighten readers away again like it did last time.

I'm very awkward  and difficult to please about two things: one is Mahler, who I kind of brought myself to some sort of musical maturity with at the ages of 16 and 17, when I listened to hardly anything else, so even now I don't want to risk a disappointment, and the other is Leonore No3, which I should probably be banned from ever reviewing for a different reason.

That's because a very old recording, found in my grandmother's forgotten box of records, was what must have introduced me to classical music at the age of about eight or nine. I can still hear how I want it to be in my head, even after all these years.

Though the Gurzenich orchestra had some nice bits in it (offstage trumpets? rousing timpani) I thought their Leonore had a rather heavy undertow to it that stopped it swimming up to the sparkling surface. And I don't think the Parsifal encore was ever going to make it into the sunlit uplands.

Still, if you think I'm wrong and I should listen to the Mahler 5, you'd better tell me within the next week. I'm not going to tell you when the Stockhausen Punkte will appear; it'll be a nice surprise, won't it?

Thursday, 21 August 2008

Prom 45: Liquid Architecture

Anybody can do it, can’t they? All you need is a computer, Garageband and, or, the sort of audio editing software I use, and there we are. No simple two-track tape; how many do you want? Eight, sixteen, forty eight? Dolby Surround? 5.1? So why is it worth bothering about this old curmudgeonly bear of a bloke called Edgar Varèse?

It’s simple really. Varèse could imagine a musical concept, and create it as a whole. And an awful lot of people playing with their computers are really just patching together ‘found sounds’ and they don’t have that. Maybe, as Boulez said in the interval ‘bio’, with “more knowledge of musical language” he would have gone further, but I think I hear an IRCAM philosophy talking here. I’ve never really seen Varèse as a composer of music, but a creator of soundstages. Of sound events. Of sonic buildings.

And Poème électronique (doesn’t that title remind you of ‘poème concrête’? I think it should) is a construction: just listen to the way some sounds are carefully repeated, how they carry a kind of flowing motion of the kind you get in the curves of Le Corbusier buildings. How they cycle: and of course, we are thinking electronics here, so we should also be thinking ‘kilocycles’ as well as kilohertz. Yet even this short piece can deliberately startle you with a heart-stopping—purely human—scream.

Yet, on a very simple level, you can listen to it simply as a sound image of a city; but these sounds are not mere imitations of footsteps and construction work (or even the unnerving whistle of a steam engine that, like the ‘footsteps’ has a human echo instead of, like others, an electronic one). They are the sounds you hear just before it gets light, when you cannot be sure they were real, in a dream you have just woken from and cannot quite recall, or ones you have simply imagined. They have come to exist outside reality, only in some inner one. They are the sounds heard by someone who is separate from all the rest of us, the ‘outsider’ of Camus. And you can feel yourself taking up that very lonely distance as you listen. That scream says “Why am I out here. . ?”

Apparently Varèse said of a contemporary composer: “He creates shit and gets paid in gold. I create gold and get . . .) Forget that this is a relatively simple piece in its technology. That’s irrelevant. It is a little nugget of gold.

It’s been said Philips were somewhat ambivalent about the Poème électronique at their Brussels pavilion fifty years ago, but I can’t altogether credit that. If they were lukewarm about this kind of music, then they certainly made up for it within a couple of decades or so with their superb Xenakis recordings. I liked the silvery sleeves, too.

He would have laughed, very sardonically I think. Transferring my digital recording of
Déserts from one computer to another, I found (after I'd deleted the original) I hadn't copied all my data files for it, so my software helpfully interpolated hundreds of bars of silence. Now if I'd recorded that on my two track reel-to-reel, that wouldn't have happened, would it? Anyway, I want to listen to all of Jonathan Harvey's Speakings instead of just the last few minutes, so I'll listen to the repeat on R3 in a few days. Prom 45 'sounds' as though it was a very intriguing programme.

R3 Relay

Prom 45:
Poème électronique

Hitting the G-Spot

G as in Gerghiev, of course. And as in Prom 46 with the LSO (in brilliant form, particularly the Leader, who delivered a hauntingly beautiful solo)  playing Sleeping Beauty. (The full version, which we are not that likely to hear again.) I was a little surprised that it seemed to take the audience a while to warm to it, but the thing about Gerghiev is that he constructs his performances with tremendous integrity: he knows where he's going, you follow. And you have to keep your wits about you from the very first few bars, or you won't get it for ages.

A glorious performance, like an Eisenstein film in sonic technicolour, and you could 'see' the story in your mind just as you do listening to a fairytale told you before you've learnt to read it for yourself. Very different to the kind of performance you might imagine from reading the notes, too.

Until tomorrow, however, that's all you'll get, because I've cajoled a friend, who's in London for her annual Proms fix, to write this one up for me to make a bit of a change. And if you didn't listen to it, off with you to the iPlayer at once. As far as I can see, it won't be repeated next week on R3 (or any other time, except possibly in the autumn or spring) in the afternoon, alas.

Some prommers in the Arena just hadn't been concentrating the way they're supposed to. How on earth could you possibly end up so uninvolved and unabsorbed  in a performance like this, and towards the end of Act 3, so you prefer to haul out your mobile phone and read your text messages? (I was momentarily distracted by the blue glow.) Apart from the fact they (there were two of them) shouldn't have had the damn things switched on anyway.

Which reminds me: listening to a few minutes here and there editing things like the interval talk and announcer chatter out of my recording when I got home, I can assure you that the R3 broadcast was about as close to what you would hear from a good seat in the hall as you could get.

(By the way, if you want to hear a broadcast Prom just the way the engineers do in their OB van, you'll need to invest in a pair of Dynaudio Acoustics AIR speakers . . .I asked . . .)

RAH Live

Prom 46: Valery Gerghiev, LSO; Tchaikovsky: Sleeping Beauty 

Wednesday, 20 August 2008

Bad language . . .

An email from the BBC: "I understand you have been trying to post a message on the Message Board. . .The BBCi Player Messageboards will only allow posts that are in English, and your post appears to include words that are not."

Well, even given the number of English/British/American pieces at the Proms this year, there's still a fair chance a post about a Prom would, wouldn't it? Does that mean we have to translate 'ritardando' or 'molto vivace'? There are times . . .

Tuesday, 19 August 2008

Wails and Whales

For various reasons (a friend's birthday being just one, and needing to conserve my energy, such as it is, for actually going to the RAH tomorrow for Gerghiev, another) I hadn't intended to listen to the Jonathan Harvey part of  Prom 45, but I caught just a few minutes of 'Speakings' because the concert seemed to be running late.

I was quite entranced by what seemed like a sonic philosophical dialogue between whales and dolphins, being a bit prosaic about it.  It will have to wait until the R3 repeat next week, though, now, before I can listen to it properly. I suggest you try it on the iPlayer in the meantime if you didn't hear it. 

The Varese (which I was longing to hear again) I've recorded, however, and I'll try to write that up soon. I was rather struck by how well the two composers may have fitted together in this Prom, but I could be wrong . . .

I see whoever uploads the notes to the 'About the Music' pages has done it again! The Varese links are the wrong way round. Get a grip over there, will you?

(Why is it every time I write about somebody like Stockhausen, Varese or Messaien, half my readers disappear? They aren't communicable diseases, you know! Some of these pieces are half a century old, or more, and composers didn't become extinct about 1870 . . . I'm getting upset. It'll be Tchaikovsky's Sleeping Beauty tomorrow, OK, so you can come back now! )

Prom 43: Consider the lilies of the field . . .

I first came across Vaughan Williams’ Flos Campi many years ago in a recording (it could well have been the only one around, though mine was second hand) by the University of Utah Chamber Choir and Utah Symphony Orchestra under Maurice Abravanel. Not one of the greatest orchestras, and it was an absolutely terrible recording technically, but I was fascinated by the music.

It was so different to the ‘Lark Ascending Vaughan Williams’ I’d been taught to despise, an artificial dogmatism that it took me years to overcome. I wasn’t confident enough then to withstand peer pressure; in fact, I still feel a bit twitchy about my current faves and pet hates, so I admit to covertly sneaking away from here sometimes to see if, somewhere, just one other proper professional reviewer might agree with me. There’s comfort even in the midst of a flock of vultures. . .But I never could seem to persuade other people to like it.*

And of course, I was young enough still to remember the guilty erotic frisson of reading, as a teenager, the Song of Solomon free of the ‘love for the church’ gloss that, like Vaughan Williams, I’d come to scorn and never found in the least plausible, though I must admit I think the foot fetishism of the epigraph to Part 6 of Flos Campi eluded me then.

I wonder if people don’t release themselves into the sensuality of it? Or even its sexuality, because in parts it really is: in this performance the chorus sounds near to an orgasm at one point, and the first section, which the oboe and viola share, creates an air of sexual longing that’s hard to beat.

I realise there are places (as when we have harp and chorus) that could easily be dismissed as sentimental, but that is not to be involved. Something tells me that to really grasp Flos Campi , to allow yourself to flow into it, you have to have had both gentle, loving erotic sex, and to have desperately missed having it. And I defy anyone not to sense spring petals opening and cheeks blooming in the ‘For lo, the winter is past’.

The chorus, in this piece, has to be heard as much as a part of the orchestra as any of the instrumental sections: more so, since the concentration is so much on that intensely sensual viola. (In the performance tonight it was only—I think rightly—”husky with passion” in part three. Elsewhere it was delicately sensual and longing.) Lawrence Power played it beautifully.

And then, of course, there is a gently jokey little piece of fake orientalism in the “Palanquin” processional; about the only place where you remember there is a whole orchestra here somewhere apart from the viola and the chorus.

And I can’t imagine that the penultimate section doesn’t really convey that “eyes across a crowded room” sensation to anybody. And the last moments of the viola fade in real tenderness and lovelorn-ness. Flos Campi is a love story, and, it's just dawned on me, a kind of virtual ballad sung only in sounds. Unusual in its form, it may be, but I still can’t see why it’s so easily dismissed.

Maybe it makes the English nervous? They’ve been brought up with all that subconscious Puritanism? I can’t persuade you? Try listening to it in the bath, with scented candles, a glass of something lightly fizzy and maybe a companion . . .

R3 relay

Prom 43: City of London Sinfonia, Lawrence Power (viola), BBC singers, Richard Hickox; Vaughan Williams: Flos Campi

*I can see from one dismissive
review by someone who is around the age now I was then, I’m still likely to find it difficult.

Attuned to the audience

I'd meant to mention in the review of the Glagolitic Mass that Boulez had, I thought, rather longer pauses than usual between the sections. To allow the more bronchitic members of the audience plenty of time to get their coughing out of the way before the music got going again? He had been in one of the boxes the night before, I gather, so he must have noticed how bad it seems to be this year. . .

(I don't really like splattering personal messages about, but perhaps I should offer an apology to my own regular 'audience': there might be a hiatus in this blog for a day or two, since just at the moment I'm suffering from a bit more pain than usual, and also somewhat from the side-effects of the drugs I take to try to kill it. So don't assume I've gone to watch the Olympics instead . . .)

Monday, 18 August 2008

Permanent ink, indelible performances

I’m not going to suggest that written music criticism (and certainly not mine, if you’re nice enough to let me call it that in the first place) is, or even should be, permanent. Some does last, of course, and we re-read it to grasp a flavour of an historic performance, or interpretation (Cardus?) or for its literary style (Shaw?). Or maybe, in the case of one more current standard-bearer, just schadenfreude . . .

What has struck me fairly forcibly again this year, pace Paul Daniel’s comment I quoted earlier, is how often people appear to confuse live performance with recorded performance. They are two entirely different things. Even when a live performance is recorded, it is rare now for even a ‘live recording’ not actually to be in fact the product of more than one performance and even a rehearsal or two. A recording is generally treated as if it is to be permanent, repeatable, historic record. Sorry about the pun, I can’t get around it.

A concert is simply the product of the circumstances of the time it was performed. In that sense, it is impermanent, ephemeral, of the moment. We might remember it, if it is particularly rare, innovatory, well-played, or just jibed well with our own mood at the time, but it is wrong to treat it as though it should be preserved even if we’ve recorded it ourselves.

Two things in a lot of writing about the Proms (particularly on the R3 Message Board this year) have struck me as being, in this context, a little foolish and mistaken. One is to criticise a live performance as though it should achieve the equivalent of the perfection that can be obtained technically in a studio recording. There a cracked horn, an early entry, can be replaced or corrected. It can’t be in a live performance, and I don’t see why people should make a fuss about it when it happens.

If you hear that on a recording, well, of course, that is unprofessional: simply because it’s meant to be heard more than once, and will become irritating the second hearing, infuriating the third, intolerable after that. In a live performance, we wince for a second, then it’s over and done with. It’s only worth bothering about if it is emblematic of generally sloppy playing, conducting, or poor ensemble. And even then, the quality of the interpretation, or the music's rarity, can make it forgiveable.

So I think, to come to the second, constant comparisons between Prom performances and recordings are mistaken, even pointless. As is the underlying assumption that every time a conductor and an orchestra performed a certain work, it always must have sounded exactly like a particular recording of it. It’s plain wrong to talk of Toscanini’s X or Furtwangler’s Y in the broad terms many do, when they simply mean W or Z recording. And it’s a way of looking at performance that does the Proms, particularly, a disservice.

Of course, it can be useful, sometimes, to elucidate the ‘sound’ or style of a concert by referring to differences between it and a recording most readers might be presumed to have heard. But that is a very different thing to saying, as I seem to have read often, that so-and-so’s interpretation was rubbish because such-and-such-another’s was the epitome of perfection.

And of course, the ‘perfection’ of a recording, as I’ve hinted, may not actually be all it seems. I’ve known recordings (I’ve been at the sessions) where it would surprise people to hear that the ‘perfection’ was attained through an editing process that amalgamated more than forty takes of just a few bars each (not necessarily even played in the right order!) in a piece that lasted no more than fifteen minutes. The one I’m thinking of was, I was very amused to read when the recording was released, praised for its ‘natural fluidity’, even for having ‘obviously been done in a single take’.

That, of course, is how it should appear. In fact, the chances of any listener finding out any different from hearing a recording made pretty well any time during most of the last two decades are as near zero as makes no difference, thanks to digital editing. I know of another recording where a few bars of percussion were ‘spliced in’ from being recorded long after the sessions in the recording engineer’s garage because of a mistake that couldn’t be corrected at the time.

Both the engineer and I waited with considerable curiosity for a particular critic who frequently complained of hearing ‘bad edits’ to spot it. He didn’t; which is not surprising, because even I, after I’d failed the test (I was up half the night determined I was going to tell the engineer I’d found it at the following afternoon’s session) and was then tipped off to exactly where it was, could never have sworn on the Bible I could actually hear it. . .

Even the BBC isn’t always entirely purist, although they do tend to resort to a little ‘trickery’ only in an emergency. Obviously, they edited out the notorious ‘mobile phone obbligato’ * which drowned the clarinet at the beginning of the Rattle/BPO Rite of Spring for the repeats, but I know of at least one occasion when a recording was actually patched together from two separate performances in different halls with wildly different accoustics and levels, because of a technical problem with the mics during the performance that was intended to be broadcast later. I know of that one, because courtesy of Avid, I was allowed to try my hand at comparing my digital needlework with the BBC’s. . .

So, I’m beginning to feel the force of Paul Daniel’s argument rather the more this year. And, of course, that is why you will seldom read here a list of recordings that are ‘better’ than or even only ‘different’ to the night’s performance. It should I think, be allowed to stand entirely on its own. Comparisons, like trainers, after a while are odorous . . .

* I haven't heard one so far this year (he says crossing his fingers). Perhaps the BBC's pre-concert announcement has finally got through. (I particularly liked the very emphatic, justifiably curt "Please switch OFF your mobile phones" that ran for a couple of seasons.) But I simply cannot understand all those people who cannot bear to stop texting or reading their SMS messages until the second the conductor raises his baton. Nothing in the world can be that urgent. Or of it is, why are they about to spend an hour and a half at a concert?

Prom 40: A Mass for the Masses

I see the BBC web people sorted out the links to the programme notes (so you’re reading my blog, eh? Don’t go away, I’ve got a question for you, and you’ll see in the last para I’m extremely angry about something else seemingly even more careless) but they still managed to confuse me. Am I supposed to call the piece that ended the first half of Prom 40 a ‘Concertino’ or a ‘Capriccio’?

Whatever, it was wonderfully capricious; ‘capering’, as in the root sense of the word. Even if the choice of instrumentation was capricious in the more common sense . . . Still, it worked marvellously, especially with that groaning, playfully head-butting euphonium. Forgive me for putting off the review this deserves, for apart from not being able to decipher my handwriting 48 hours on, my pen split after the first few bars and spread ink all over my notes and my fingers thereafter, which didn’t help. I’ll have to get back to you on this one, but it really was superb.

I don’t know anything about the Paul Wingfield ‘reconstruction’ of Janacek's Glagolitic Mass, and I have too much to catch upon to go into it thoroughly, so I’ll leave that aspect to others. Whatever it entails, Boulez and his forces made it utterly convincing and absorbing. A blogging colleague, if he’ll allow me to be so familiar (Doundou Tchil) wrote that it “has always been a poser to me, because it's huge and sprawling, and that sort of thing tends to bring out extreme syrup from most conductors.”

I don’t know whether he will agree, but this was Rice Krispies popping all over the place, with a nice solid foundation of whatever a substantial Slavonic peasant breakfast equivalent of bacon eggs and toast might be. No clogging golden (or Maple) syrup anywhere. And a good helping of goat’s milk instead of skimmed in more than a few places where the ‘folk’, or ‘popular’ roots showed through, pointed up very neatly and unselfconsciously by Boulez, and sung with real pleasure, understanding and grasp by the combined BBC Symphony and London Symphony Choruses. . . Who also managed to convey perfectly the heady smell of incense of a Greek Orthodox church in the more purely liturgical parts.

Boulez even showed us in the Intrada, Introduction and elsewhere, without any pedantry or pedagogy, where the Mass has some foundation both in Slavonic popular music, and even in the Sinfonietta, which any competent musician could probably reconstruct almost entirely from the first three minutes.

There were sections that were dance-like: the ‘Svet’ (Sanctus) where you could visualise the chorus in full peasant costume; trance-like (the Agnus dei) with its romantic lyricism, numinous stings and almost ethereal woodwind; and rousingly, exuberantly rowdy, like a crowd at the fair, in the stunning ‘Slava’ (Gloria).

And what tension in the complexity of the Kyrie. Boulez built it up with a perfect grip on chorus and orchestra, relaxing (as he did elsewhere), then tautening it in almost Hitchcockian fashion, until in the Crucifixus, the culminating ‘scream’ from the chorus was almost unbearable.

The penultimate movement is a soaring, vivid, vibrant organ solo (played by Simon Preston, who else?) which was an entire cathedral in itself, as glorious, as huge, as Santa Sophia. Yet played with superb delicacy of touch and sympathy. The last movement, the ‘repeat’ of the Intrada, now celebratory, joyous and like a rowdy country fete, Boulez took at breakneck pace, without a single stumble. It was breathtaking.

There is, of course, always a little snag in this sort of performance at the Proms, and, because the BBC either cannot or will not pay the sort of fees most toprank singers demand (though I did, gloriously, hear Monserrat Caballe in a Prom once) we are often a little let down by the quality of the soloists, however much they make up for it, as they did in this Prom, by sheer enthusiasm.

I thought the soprano in the ‘Slava’ (Gloria) wobbly, and not (at least as I heard it from the radio broadcast) really powerful enough, and sometimes strained; the mezzo and tenor I also thought were less forceful than I might have hoped, though clearly Simon O’Neill (tenor) was putting his soul into it, as was the bass (Peter Fried) much as Boulez’ Mass really sounded as though it needed a thoroughly ‘Russian’ sounding one.

Even so, this was a truly glorious performance. Another from this season that if you missed on the night, or if you miss the repeat, you will regret. As this supposedly was Boulez’ final appearance as a conductor (according to the presenter, though concerts are advertised in London and Paris through to December) you might not get another chance.

(It looks as though that comment might have been the product of very casual or careless background ‘research’ for his script that nobody thought of checking. Apparently, Boulez has said he doesn’t want to conduct opera any more, not simply not conduct . . .For god’s sake, BBC, get this kind of thing right, will you? It’s not the first time this has happened in the last three or four seasons. Since it really startled me, it serves me right for not checking it properly on the night, too. So now, I can’t trust a single word any of the presenters say, and I’m going to have to ‘fact check’ everything myself. Make my life harder, why don’t you? I would have been sacked by any of my editors on the spot for something like that.)

I apparently misunderstood—not paying enough attention—the announcer in fact referring to his last appearance conducting opera. (See comment.) However, that doesn't invalidate my general strictures on the quality of some of the background research and proof-reading for Proms material over the last few years: the confusion between the 'Concertino' and 'Capriccio' being a prime example: it's the 'Concertino' in the Proms Guide and 'Capriccio' in the Radio Times, I see.

I've already admitted I make mistakes too; and I dare say before the end of the season I'll make more. I believe I've assigned Doundou Tchil the wrong gender. Sorry.

R3 relay

BBCSO, BBC Symphony Chorus, London Symphony Chorus/Pierre Boulez: Janacek, Glagolitic Mass.

The photo is of a mural in a Birmingham house (now destroyed) representing a scene from Petrushka, painted by house guests in, I believe, the late twenties, to surprise Philip Sargent Florence (whose wife, Lalla, was prominent in the early family planning movement) on their return from a performance in Paris . . .The cottage over the stables, which he rented to Louis McNeice, and in which W H Auden stayed when he was in Birmingham, has also gone, and there isn't even a blue plaque in the housing estate that now covers the site. . .

Sunday, 17 August 2008

All that glisters . . .

Occasionally, I get irritated and I dig my heels in. Even if sometimes it feels like they’re just sinking into soft sand. I will not, nohow, review a PR stunt. Or another fashion parade. Sharon Bezaly (Pron 43, Nigel Osborne's Flute Concerto) came with “gold hair, in a gold sheath dress.” Carrying “a 24-carat gold flute.” What the hell has any of that to do with music?

Still, I liked the almost genteely understated (in orchestral forces) Mozart Symhony No 34 with the London Sinfonietta under Richard Hickox.

Prom 40: Tarantara, tarantara!

“I don’t care at all for tradition,” said Boulez in the interval interview on Radio 3. “I like to establish my own tradition! . . . A tradition is just an accumulation of mannerisms and. . . imitations. The real approach is just to take the score, a personal relationship with it, and try to give that to the audience.” (I’ve paraphrased a little, not being much cop at shorthand.) What he created in Prom 40 with Janacek’s Sinfonietta and Concertino, let alone the Glagolitic Mass, was definitely his own, quite new, ‘tradition”, and a superb, fascinating one, probably un-imitatable, it was too.

I didn’t know, but apparently this was Boulez’ final appearance as a conductor. He’s ‘retiring’ to concentrate on composition, the presenter said at the end of the concert.*  What a way to go! And what a damn shame that we won’t have this kind of experience again. He hadn’t changed a bit since those glory days—what, thirty-odd years ago?—when he was Chief Conductor of the same orchestra he came back to tonight. We were really privileged.

Some Proms are epiphanies, as we rediscover a piece, like the Sinfonietta in this, that we have almost come to think of as banal through too-frequent, too-average playing. (It has never helped that the ‘fanfare’ introduced a British early afternoon soap for years.) The BBCSO’s under Boulez’s baton was another one this year. Not to mention the authentic ‘shock of the new’ we had when it came to the astonishing Concertino. I’d rescue that from a burning building well before I bothered about pretty well any of the ‘new’ contemporary pieces I’ve heard this season.

From the first notes of the ‘fanfare’, it sounded as though this was going to be different; not a brash blazing thing, a separate little showpiece blasted out to get your attentiion, though in its almost understated way, it did exactly that, but a proper opening statement of a theme. This Sinfonietta was, for once, absolutely true to its title. Tautly performed, very carefully, insightfully, constructed in the orchestral balance, piccolo, flutes and violins soaring with seeming casual simplicity above the statements of the brass. Pure, even, in its occasional unashamed, foxy side-glances at Romaticism, too. Vivaciously played, and presumably, conducted . . . Pure joy to hear like that.

Boulez commented to the effect that Janecek was not a ‘folk’ composer, but one who lived ‘popular’ music, and this was what this performance, and the Mass, brought out with tremendous clarity. And the BBCSO seemed to know, just as he trained them to years ago (with some difficulty at times, I seem to remember) though few of its members then could still be part of it now, instinctively, exactly what he wanted.

Oh dear, BBC websters, you’ve done it again! None of the links to the notes for these performances were what they seemed: those titled ‘Glagolitic Mass’ were for the Concertino, for the Sinfonietta, the Mass, and so on. Or something like that. I got confused. Like I did a couple of times last year, when they did the same sort of thing, only worse; Beethoven was transmuted into Glazunov, or something even more bizarre. Doesn’t anybody there a) know about classical music, b) read and/or c) check with someone competent at either if they don’t? I think I know the answers, and they ain’t encouraging. So just print all three, and sort it out later. Saves kicking your computer into inoperability out of frustration.

Between you and me, I had hoped I might be able to crib a little from them, never having heard the
Concertino before. But, as you will see if you download them, that was a rather forlorn hope, so I had to rely entirely on my own. . .And 24 hours later I can barely read the damn scribbles.

And what with the
Glagolitic Mass, then Belshazzar on Saturday and Flos Campi on Sunday, I haven’t time to listen to it all over again and It’s too late to learn proper shorthand now; I really must do something about my handwriting. To think I used to be able to do proper Italian Renaissance italic, even fairly quickly . . .

Glagolitic Mass review, and maybe the Concertino, may have to wait a little while in consequence. (I can’t keep staying up this late; well, not writing, anyway.) That was also a superb, glorious, exciting Carl Orffian-Carmina Buranian (I mean that in the best, lively, engaging, communicating sense!) performance. Oh, those choruses! Tenor and bass pretty good, bit thinnish, bass a bit better; mezzo and soprano a bit wobbly.

Fantastic energy. But, oh, again, that wonderful orgasmic organ! Wrong word for an instrument in a mass, maybe, but this one was downright pagan in its festiveness anyway. It shivered my icons’ timbers, I can tell you; I could see the halos shuddering. Boulez, I swear, 83 (two years older than the BBC Proms themselves!) going on 23 tonight. I’d wondered about the ‘reconstruction’ of the score (I’ll have to delve a bit more into that sometime) but this performance totally justified the choice.

* I may have been the victim of some careless background 'research' for the presenter's script here. He is supposed to be conducting two concerts in London and one in Paris between now and the end of  the year. Apparently, he has said he doesn't want to conduct opera, not not conduct . . . I apologise for not checking this myself. And I'm damned annoyed  with the BBC, because I don't see why I should have needed to. I won't take them on trust any more.

R3 relay

Prom 40: BBCSO/Pierre Boulez: Janacek, Sinfonietta; Concertino; Glagolitic Mass.

Plus ça change . . .

I don't think I can cope with this opera and oratorio stuff from the 17th and 18th centuries. It's too modern for me.

First we have a self-obsesssed ruler who doesn't care about his country; will even get rid of his closest advisers without compunction when what they tell him doesn't suit. Even have them killed. Or drive them to suicide.

Then we have a self-obsessed ruler who lets his country go to wrack and ruin, an angry oppressed population, a warning he's really letting himself in for it, an invasion, the death of the ruler and reconstruction under the new forces.

What's that phrase the Neocons kept bandying about? And I seem to have heard again in a pot-calling-the-kettle sort of way very recently? "Regime Change"?

Prom 41 (Handel's Belshazzar—OAE, Charles McKerras) was superb. I'll be coming back to it.

Did somebody say 'old' music just isn't relevant to the 21st century . . .

(You'll have noticed I'm trying to get the accents sorted, at last , I know it's long overdue. . .Speaking of instant gratification, I've noticed a lot of would-be readers of this blog scour Google for reviews within 24 hours of the concert ending. I can't always manage that, you know. Even the nationals don't. And I've been catching up on some much-needed sleep this weekend. Pateience. Patience. . .)